Vatican approves norms to reshape U.S. priestly formation

News: Program of Priestly Formation

Pope Francis meets with seminarians from the Pontifical North American College in Rome, 2021. Credit: Independent Photo Agency Srl / Alamy Stock Photo

The Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy has approved new norms for the formation of seminarians, which were drafted by the U.S. bishops’ conference in 2019, and have been under discussion between Rome and the USCCB since that time.

The sixth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, which governs seminary education for priests, will require seminaries and dioceses to reshape their formation programs, in order to accommodate new stages of formation at both the start and conclusion of seminary studies.

The text has been the subject of close negotiations between Rome and the USCCB over several issues, including Rome’s requirement for a non-academic period of formation called the “propaedeutic stage.”

The program’s text, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, requires an initial formation stage focused on prayer,  which must ordinarily last one year, and which precedes philosophical studies. Some college credits can be taken during the preliminary stage, offsetting concerns about whether students will qualify for loan deferments or meet visa requirements.

The U.S. bishops were notified of the PPF’s Vatican approval by a Wednesday email from Bishop James Checchio of Metuchen, New Jersey, who serves as chairman of the USCCB Committee for Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations.

Checchio told the bishops that formal approval had been granted by the congregation’s prefect, Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung Sik on March 22 and communicated to conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez earlier this month.

The document, a copy of which was obtained by The Pillar, may still be subject to “minor edits,” Checchio said, but the substance of the norms have now been finalized.

Every national or regional bishops’ conference is required to develop its own document on the formation and education of seminarians, based on a periodically updated Vatican document called the Ratio fundamentalis.

National documents must outline the academic requirements, pastoral and spiritual development, and personal formation which is to be implemented in seminaries, and have to be approved at the Congregation for Clergy.

In the United States, the Program for Priestly Formation is issued by the USCCB and updated regularly.

The newly approved sixth edition says it is the product of “reflecting on the lived experience of seminaries and the Church in the United States in these opening decades of the twenty-first century.”

The text says it is intended to reflect the principles of the most recent Ratio fundamentalis, which was issued in 2016: “The fundamental idea is that Seminaries should form missionary disciples who are ‘in love’ with the Master, shepherds ‘with the smell of the sheep,’ who live in their midst to bring the mercy of God to them.”

But after the USCCB approved a version of the sixth PPF in 2019, Roman approval stalled, amid reported disagreements over some of the Ratio’s requirements.

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The final document, approved by Rome and circulated Wednesday, delineated four stages of seminary formation: propaedeutic, discipleship, configuration, and vocational synthesis.

The “propaedeutic stage is to focus on fostering communion between a seminarian, his bishop, and his particular church, to allow for a period of intense vocational discernment, and to spend time learning to pray, especially through scriptural reading and the practice of lectio divina,” the document provides.

“The minimum one-year duration of the propaedeutic stage is twelve calendar months,” and is not ordinarily to exceed two years, according to the new PPF — in line with the Congregation for Clergy’s Ratio fundamentalis.

“The propaedeutic stage should not be confined to times in which a university or college is in session,” the document explains: “There might be fewer vacation periods during the propaedeutic stage. For example, while a break may be envisioned for the Christmas holidays, the celebrations of Holy Week and Easter might take place within the propaedeutic community.”

“Further, since this period lasts a full year, a set period at the beginning and again at the end of the propaedeutic stage, without any courses for academic credit, would assist in ensuring that the goals of this stage are met.”

While the propaedeutic stage is to be set apart from academic studies, the PPF does provide that “a seminarian can earn college credit for some of his general studies during the propaedeutic stage. Such coursework should not exceed nine credit hours per semester, so that the stage’s goals and objectives will be accomplished.”

Such classes, which would allow for seminarians to maintain student visas and the deferment of student loan payments while they remain in studies, must be “proper to the propaedeutic stage’s intellectual formation,” and might include biblical literacy, catechesis, or prayer and spirituality. But the text explains they cannot include classes from the philosophical cycle, which must not begin until the propaedeutic stage is complete.

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